Mars' 'flying saucer' splashes down after NASA test

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A series of tests deploying spacecraft to Mars has kicked off in Kauai, Hawaii--the furthest island before the "garden island" apart of the Hawaiian Islands.

NASA Mars Test


By CHRISTOPHER WEBER

LOS ANGELES (AP) - NASA has tested new technology designed to bring spacecraft - and one day even astronauts - safely down to Mars, with the agency declaring the experiment a qualified success even though a giant parachute got tangled on the way down.

Saturday's $150 million experiment is the first of three involving the Low Density Supersonic Decelerator vehicle. Tests are being conducted at high altitude on Earth to mimic descent through the thin atmosphere of the Red Planet.

A balloon hauled the saucer-shaped craft 120,000 feet into the sky from a Navy missile range on the Hawaiian island of Kauai. Then, the craft's own rocket boosted it to more than 30 miles high at supersonic speeds.

As the craft prepared to fall back to earth, a doughnut-shaped tube around it expanded like a Hawaiian puffer fish, creating atmospheric drag to dramatically slow it down from Mach 4, or four times the speed of sound.

Then the parachute unfurled - but only partially. The vehicle made a hard landing in the Pacific Ocean.

NASA Mars Test

Engineers won't look at the parachute problem as a failure but as a way to learn more and apply that knowledge during future tests, said NASA engineer Dan Coatta with the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California.

"In a way, that's a more valuable experience for us than if everything had gone exactly according to plan," he said.

A ship was sent to recover a "black box" designed to separate from the vehicle and float. Outfitted with a GPS beacon, the box contains the crucial flight data that scientists are eager to analyze.

NASA planned to hold a news teleconference on the flight Sunday.

Since the twin Viking spacecraft landed on the red planet in 1976, NASA has relied on a parachute to slow landers and rovers.

But the latest experiment involved both the drag-inducing device and a parachute that was 110 feet in diameter - twice as large as the one that carried the 1-ton Curiosity rover in 2011.

Cutting-edge technologies are needed to safely land larger payloads on Mars, enabling delivery of supplies and materials "and to pave the way for future human explorers," a NASA statement said.

Technology development "is the surest path to Mars," said Michael Gazarik, head of space technology at NASA headquarters.

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Mars' 'flying saucer' splashes down after NASA test
This image taken from video provided by NASA shows the launch of the high-altitude balloon carrying this saucer-shaped vehicle for NASA, Saturday June 28, 2014 in Kauai, Hawaii. Saturday's experimental flight high in Earth's atmosphere is testing technology that could be used to land on Mars. (AP Photo/NASA)
This image provided by NASA shows the launch of the high-altitude balloon carrying a saucer-shaped vehicle for NASA, to test technology that could be used to land on Mars, Saturday June 28, 2014 in Kauai, Hawaii. Saturday's experimental flight high in Earth's atmosphere is testing a giant parachute designed to deliver heavier spacecraft and eventually astronauts. (AP Photo/NASA)
This image taken from video provided by NASA shows the launch of the high-altitude balloon carrying a saucer-shaped vehicle for NASA, to test technology that could be used to land on Mars, Saturday June 28, 2014 in Kauai, Hawaii. Saturday's experimental flight high in Earth's atmosphere is testing a giant parachute designed to deliver heavier spacecraft and eventually astronauts. (AP Photo/NASA)
In this image released on June 23, 2014, shows NASA's Curiosity Mars rover self-portrait. NASA's Curiosity Mars used the camera at the end of its arm in April and May 2014 to take dozens of component images combined into this self-portrait where the rover drilled into a sandstone target called "Windjana." NASA’s Mars Curiosity rover will complete a Martian year, 687 Earth days, on June 24. (AP Photo/NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS)
Russian space station crew member Oleg Artemiev floats outside the International Space Station during a space walk by two Russians, Thursday, June 16, 2014, to install a new antenna and move a cargo boom. Alexander Skvortsov and Artemiev will also switch out some science experiments. (AP Photo/NASA-TV)
Russian space station crew member Oleg Artemiev floats outside the International Space Station during a space walk by two Russians, Thursday, June 16, 2014, to install a new antenna and move a cargo boom. Alexander Skvortsov and Artemiev will also switch out some science experiments. (AP Photo/NASA-TV)
This undated handout two-picture combo of artist conceptions provided by NASA/JPL Caltech shows what NASA says are good candidates for a mission to capture an asteroid, haul it to the moon for astronauts to visit. One prime candidate swung close by Earth in 2011 so astronomers know its size, about 20 feet, mass and density, but they don’t really know what it looks like. These images are two different artist conceptions of what the lightweight asteroid could look like, either a pile of small rocks flying together in formation, left, or a larger porous rock with pebbles surrounding it, right. (AP Photo/NASA/JPL Caltech)
In this released by NASA on Tuesday, June 17, 2014, NASA astronauts Reid Wiseman, left, Steve Swanson and ESA astronaut Alexander Gerst take a break to watch ten minutes of live World Cup matches between science experiments while living and working aboard the International Space Station. (AP Photo/NASA)
In this undated frame grab from video provided by NASA, United States astronauts Steve Swanson, left, Reid Wiseman, right, and German astronaut Alexander Gerst, center, kick around a soccer ball some 230 miles above Earth aboard the International Space Station. The astronauts say they will be watching the World Cup games. (AP Photo/NASA)
This image provided by NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center shows a significant solar flare erupting on June 10, 2014. The sun has emitted 3 X-class solar flares in two days. X-class denotes the most intense solar flares. (AP Photo/Goddard Space Flight Center)
ADVANCE FOR USE SATURDAY, JUNE 14 - This photo taken on May 24, 2014, and released by NASA, shows storm clouds during a weather reconnaissance missions over North Carolina flown pilot Stu Broce in an ER-2 plane. Since May 3, NASA has been flying the jet, a modified version of the U-2 high-altitude spy plane, on weather reconnaissance missions over North Carolina. (AP Photo/NASA, Stuart Broce via The Macon Telegraph)
This artist's rendering provided by NASA on Thursday, April 17, 2014 shows an Earth-sized planet dubbed Kepler-186f orbiting a star 500 light-years from Earth. Astronomers say the planet may hold water on its surface and is the best candidate yet of a habitable planet in the ongoing search for an Earth twin. (AP Photo/NASA Ames, SETI Institute, JPL-Caltech, T. Pyle)
This April 9, 2014 photo shows two NASA rockets on display outside the New York Hall of Science in Corona in the Queens borough of New York. The rockets debuted at the 1964 World’s Fair as part of a space park that captured the excitement of the era’s quest to explore space and get a man on the moon. They are among a number of World’s Fair relics that are still in place. (AP Photo/Beth J. Harpaz)
In this image made available from a video by NASA TV shows the SpaceX Falcon rocket on the launch pad at the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Fla., Monday, April 14, 2014. The unmanned SpaceX rocket carries the Dragon capsule, which is full of supplies and is expected to dock with the International Space Station later this week. (AP Photo/NASA TV)
Russia's Soyuz TMA-13M spacecraft carrying the International Space Station (ISS) crew of European Space Agency's German astronaut Alexander Gerst, Russian cosmonaut Maxim Suraev and US NASA astronaut Gregory Wiseman blasts off from the launch pad at Russian-leased Baikonur cosmodrome early on May 29, 2014. AFP PHOTO/KIRILL KUDRYAVTSEV (Photo credit should read KIRILL KUDRYAVTSEV/AFP/Getty Images)
People look at the Russia's Soyuz TMA-13M spacecraft carrying the International Space Station (ISS) crew of European Space Agency's German astronaut Alexander Gerst, Russian cosmonaut Maxim Suraev and US NASA astronaut Gregory Wiseman blasting off from the launch pad at Russian-leased Baikonur cosmodrome early on May 29, 2014. AFP PHOTO/KIRILL KUDRYAVTSEV (Photo credit should read KIRILL KUDRYAVTSEV/AFP/Getty Images)
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